Chapter 4.15

Heavy drops burst on my face, forming pools against my closed eyelids. I could hear the hollow patter of them hitting the armour on chest. I feared someone might hear, but soon the roar of raindrops smashing into every surface around me drowned out any sound beyond a few feet.

It must have been warm to rain and not snow. Didn’t feel warm. Not when it soaked though my jacket, pulling my clothes into a sticky embrace with my skin. Snow was gentle. Snow lay on top of you politely. Rain wormed its way into your clothes to chill you.

The cold hurt, but it was bearable. It enveloped me in a cocoon of numbness. A universal, whole body ache, masking whatever bruises I’d managed to gather over the night.

I lay for a while longer, telling myself I had to give it time before moving. Time for them to start searching further afield, hoping that they wouldn’t look a couple of feet away, but who in their right mind would lie down for a rest in the rain so close to those that want them dead?

In this weather, they wouldn’t have to do much to achieve their goal. I couldn’t just lay here. I didn’t think Beth would forgive me, putting so much effort into not getting murdered then falling asleep in the rain and getting pneumonia, or hypothermia.

This was no time for a nap. However tempting it was just to keep my eyes closed and forget where I was, forget the aches, forget the pain.

No. I wasn’t one for giving up.

I lifted an arm and brushed the water from my face. Heavy, took more effort than pulling my whole weight up onto this little roof.

I got a glimpse of the night sky. Night. Was it so dark a minute ago? I could see the glittering rain-drops, streaks starring out in every direction as I stared directly up into the belly of the black cloud before everything blurred, water filling my eyes.

I blinked them closed in time for a jagged flash of red to fill my vision, followed by a low rippling rumble of thunder.

Hadn’t had a good storm for a long time.

Good timing too. However unpleasant the rain and the cold, there was little better to mask an escape. Fog, perhaps. At least the rain was as unpleasant for those trying to find you. It would be difficult to persuade a lot of men to scour the streets in this weather, especially with their back’s itching, expecting a knife any minute.

Resigning myself to my choice of not dying on a roof, I took the path of least resistance and rolled off my back down the gentle slope until I had a hand against the mossy felt. The water that had pooled between my body and it’s natural path to the gutter rushed over my palms and slapped against the floor below.

I was near enough to the edge to slide on my belly until I could see the courtyard alley.

Nothing. Thank god, if there was anyone there I swear they would be able to hear my teeth chattering. I forced each muscle to relax to subdue the shivering before I broke a tooth.

It didn’t want to go down. I wanted to get some height, to orient myself, to get clear of anyone looking for me. That meant a climb. But the wall the roof I’d found joined onto was three straight stories of flat brickwork. There was nothing to work with, no cables, no drain pipes, no fire-escapes, not even windows.

I’d found the only roof in a quarter mile radius without any route but back down the direction I’d come. That was probably one reason why no one had thought to check it. It would be a stupid place to hide-out.

The grimy, wet-slick surface of the roof was conducive to letting my legs slip over the lip. Armour doesn’t bend well in the middle. The plates dug into my gut as I let my weight leave the roof and onto my arms, gripping the guttering. Kicking at the wall for a bit of traction, I pushed over the edge.

The edge moved. Down. The screws, abuse from my hasty climb up forgotten, gave way with a merciless crack of old mortar giving way.

I had a stomach-jerking moment, just enough to think ‘oh shit’ and nowhere near enough to attempt any kind of damage limitation, before I hit the floor.

Landing on your back isn’t elegant. You can’t roll, you can’t break the fall with anything but your ass, your spine or your head.

Luckily, there was a heap of garbage that stopped me breaking said spine, even if it left me winded and gasping at the air. The impact was enough for electric stars to burst into my vision despite the helmet.

I rolled over, pushing the junk away from me so I could climb to my hands and knees, then kneel, and finally stand, be it with the wall for support.

Maybe I shouldn’t start climbing up after all. if I couldn’t drop from a first-story roof without hurting myself it might be best for me to make my way on foot, wherever I was going.

Going. Involves moving.

I placed one foot in front of the other and managed  to start a staggering walk. For those first few steps I kept moving my feet simply so I didn’t fall flat on my face, but I was moving and it wasn’t long before the activity cleared my head a little.

Blinking away the fog of fatigue, I pushed myself flat against the alley wall, or as flat as I could get without noisily scraping my armour along the brickwork. I shimmied to the entrance, away from the building I’d come from. I didn’t want to go back. Had they cleaned up? Either way… I didn’t want to see.

Someone leaned against the alley entrance, facing outwards, a damp cigarette hanging limply from his mouth. I would have thought they were a passer-by, except they’d forsaken a perfect alcove mere meters away for that exact spot that gave them such a good view of anyone wanting to get into this particular alley, despite the downpour.

That and the long dark shape clutched in his hand, idly resting against the same wall he was.

Lucky he wasn’t paying much attention to anyone coming out of the alley. The rain-storm gave cover for my footsteps as I came up behind him. The rattle of thunder might cover the sound of a gun, but I didn’t want to risk it.

It was only when I’d got within striking distance I realised I had nothing to strike with. No knife. I need more knives. Can never have enough knives.

Some sound must have carried over the rain. He begun a laborious turn. I got enough time to catch the hint of a frown on his face before I leaped forwards and grabbed the gun in his hand.

It was longer than any pistol, but didn’t have a stock like a rifle, making it easy enough to grab the barrel and twist it around to point at him.

I was in no position to pull the trigger, but I didn’t want to, I just wanted to make sure he really didn’t want to. No noise.

His fingers locked in the trigger guard, the muzzle pressing against his naval.

Flaw: His free hand. Luck: He didn’t have a knife, or didn’t think to reach for one. A closed fist caught me in the chest, with little effect, but the next hit me in the throat.

The burst of pain made me falter. It short-circuited my brain for a split-second. Shock. I didn’t think, or move until his next punch hit me. By chance, in the struggle we’d twisted. He harmlessly struck the shoulder of my vest.

I had to end things fast. I jumped upwards into him. The hard outer layer of my helmet crunched into his nose. One advantage to being short.

My knee struck him between his legs. Easy target. Again. Again. Again. Same spot, as fast as I could. I didn’t count how many times.

I was impressed he didn’t scream. Twisted fingers, broken nose and god knows what kind of damage in places I didn’t want to think about in all that much detail. All he managed was a strangled moan before I managed to fully twist the gun from his grip and strike him across the temple as hard as I could, that in turn slamming the side of his head into the corner of the wall.

I was off again before he crumpled to the ground. I tucked the gun into my chest, massaged my abused windpipe, and settled into a fast jog. The kind of jog I’d gotten used to doing every morning. I soon found a pace, not caring what direction – my eyes weren’t scanning the skyline for landmarks, they were probing the shadows for targets.

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Chapter 4.14

I looked down at my hands. It was too dark to really see more than the shape, too dark to see the blood I could feel, prickling as it dried in air.

It stuck the skin of my fingers together as I flexed, pulling my flesh into a moment of webbing as I opened my fingers, before the skin peeled free.

A groan emanated from one of the bodies. Didn’t want to hear groaning. Not out of squeamish disgust. Not fear of him finding his strength and harming me. No, a whole other fear, a fear I’d make him stop.

I staggered away, foot catching blood and slipping, throwing my boot into the wall with a thud. I threw out my arm,  palm slapping against plaster to regain my balance, and sticking slightly. I could smell it, taste it on the air, dust and blood, kicked up and spilled by the short fight.

I staggered out of the corridor. I’d broken my knife. It was a junk knife I’d borrowed from Mike, but it it had been mine for the time I’d held it. It was a good knife, well, a good knife probably would’t have broken…

I should go to Jim. He’ll get me a better one. But I’d have to leave the Island. Maybe Jack’s dad could get something, or make something. He looked like he had a pretty serious workshop.

Maybe I should get something a little more… heavy duty than a knife. Maybe a knife wouldn’t cut it. Ha.

Beth was right. They had guns, bigger guns. They had more men. They had cars.

I reached the point we’d split up. There was no more furniture turned over, giving me little path to follow, but there we’d already made our way through the building.

Windows. The sun had set, leaving only the dirty orange glow of street-lighting to bleed through grimy papered glass.

Soon enough, I came across a door. Closed. Locked. Undamaged. I brushed my fingers along the raised cylinder of the lock, the metal cold to the touch, icy.

A simple barrel latch, the same kind he’d used his little device on before. It hadn’t taken long. No damage, lock behind him. Confuse the trail.

I pushed the handle down and threw my shoulder into it until the creaking wood gave way with a splintered whine of tearing wood. Yeah, I was making the trail pretty clear, but I didn’t have a fancy lock pick, and I didn’t have time to mess around with trying to find another way out.

Besides, it was hard to find much of myself that cared.

I rotated the ball of my shoulder in its socket to fend off the ache, as I soaked in my surroundings. Free, at last, from cramped interior, I tried to find my bearings. Direction…

Low hanging clouds obscured all there was to see of the sky. No stars. No moon. A single street light, buzzing it’s nasty electric drone threw out it’s pitiful attempt at lighting. It seemed to cast more shadows than it lit.

I was not on a main street at least, no one here to greet me with violence. I looked to what little I could see of the skyline over the nearby buildings, seeking the grey brick of Jack’s father’s workshop. It was close, safer than anywhere else. I didn’t want to drag anyone else into this, but I didn’t have much choice. Besides the decision had already been made. I hadn’t had long to consider the ramifications of it at the time.

There were three guys dead or dying barely a hundred paces behind me. There was likely a hell of a lot more angry and vying for blood behind them. As soon as they found a place to focus… I couldn’t count on being alone for long.

I picked up the pace. There was little point trying to track where Mike and friends had gone. If there was a sudden burst of gunfire – I might be able to locate them. For now, best I made my own way and hope they managed on their own.

Up. I needed to get height. Easier to hide, easier to escape, easier to spot enemies, the higher ground was always an advantage.

A drainpipe, steel, not plastic, ran up a stout building a few yards away. I was at the base in seconds, giving it a tug to test its strength.

No good. The whole pipe came out from the wall along with a plume of mortar dust, screws still hanging from its brackets. No good.

Anything else? Garbage can? I kicked one over, the bag it held splitting, spilling it’s rancid guts onto the asphalt. A host of flies burst into the air around me and the smell hit me like a wall.

Grimacing, I lifted it and flipped it upside-down, pushing it against the brickwork.

Shouting. They’d found the bodies. Not long.

I climbed onto the thing. It rocked an uneven, abused cylinder on an uneven footing. But with wobbling legs I managed to stand, walking myself up the wall with my hands like a kid ready to take his first steps.

I’d have to jump. I’d have to catch the gutter, not much else to grab.

If I fell, if it gave way… I’d have to fight. Fight would be loud, there was no more shooting elsewhere to distract. I’d would bring them all running.

I took a deep breath and jumped. The metal edge of the gutter cut into my fingers. I felt it give, an inch, my heart leaping in the moment of weightlessness. The panic of the fall.

But it held. It settled.

I hauled my body up, kicking my leg over the lip of the roof.

As I rolled over onto my back, panting with the effort, I heard heavy footfalls. A broken door bounce too far open into the wall. Boots on concrete. Talking.

“They got out this way, look, the door. Footprints, which way d’they go?” I lay, looking up at the sky. A drop of sleety rain landed on my cheek. Blood on my boots. Great.

“Too wet, they don’t last a few steps.”

“Fuckers! ” Shouting. Idiot. You’ll let me know where you are, or you would have done if I wasn’t a handful of meters away from you. “Go get Victor. They got out, but they can’t get that far.”

Another drop hit my forehead. Rain. Great. I should probably move, try find some shelter.

I couldn’t. I tried to convince myself it was because they were so close, the creak of shingles would alert them of my presence.

But they didn’t stand there long. One left, boots thudding back through the building. The other picked a direction and started searching.

The reality?

I didn’t have the energy.

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Chapter 4.13

Once within the relative safety of the building I chanced a glance at my surroundings. There was just enough light to get an idea of depth. It wasn’t large. Tight, crowded, busy, full of detail I couldn’t make out. I tasted dust, kicked up into the air by our unwelcome entrance.

There was still gunfire. I felt the vibrations in my hands as stray bullets hit the building. But compared to what it had been like a mere moment ago there was a distinct still. The place was empty of life, which was what mattered. I crawled forwards to where Mike was propping himself up on his elbows.

“You okay to move?” A whisper, for what it was worth.

“Think so.” I could barely see his eyes in the darkness. A dim reflected gleam was the only indication they were open.

We crawled on our hands and knees away from the window, dragging tracks through a thick dust that lay on the cold floor. I pulled myself up on the doorframe opposite and peeked around the corner. No lights, no movement. For now. I motioned for Mike to follow.

I tried to keep the pace up as we pushed through the building. I had no idea which direction we were going, but anything was better than staying stationary. Maybe we’d caused enough confusion to slip away before they worked out what the hell happened.

We could hope.

Turned out hope wasn’t enough. The floor shook with a crash from behind us, junk rattled as it reverberated through the building. A door, a window, I couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter. They’d worked out where we were, which building, or had enough people searching that someone was close by chance.

Our pace quickened. I felt something grab my arm, felt a stab of adrenaline, but it was only the small fingers of the girl. Her father’s efforts were concentrated on helping Mike, who was being mostly dragged, one arm over the chemist’s broad shoulders.

Where I saw opportunity, I kicked over furniture into doorways and our the paths of our followers. A barrier of thick steel shelves, work benches, I didn’t dedicate much effort to determining the junk I threw down behind us.

We’d given up on stealth. No time. They were too close behind. Doors were forced open with violent haste. Mike pulled down the handle and I kicked them with enough force to splinter the wood. Our only hope was the sound would get drowned out by the noise of those trying to get through the obstacle course we’d formed behind us.

I stopped in a narrow corridor joining two rooms as another crash met my ears. Closer, from the room we’d just come through. We had seconds.

Did I really want to fight beside someone with concussion, maybe, and a small child?

“Go ahead,” I said. I pulled the girl’s wrist, breaking her grip on my arm. Did I really want her to see me fight? “Get them out of here, Mike.”

“Don’t know if there’s really anywhere to go,” he replied, leaning on the wall, breathing heavy, deep and breathless.

“Anywhere. Move. If this comes out near Jack’s dad’s place, aim for that. He might be able to help us out.” He nodded, and they shuffled forwards as I held back.

I’d carefully chosen the narrow space to make my stand, barely wider than the entrance at either end – just enough to tuck in between the door and the wall.

Footsteps. Grunting, muttering I couldn’t really make out. A thud as someone kicked aside a chair, tipped hurriedly in their path. There was plenty of warning of their approach.

A casual curse and an angry shush. “You think we’re not making enough noise already?” Rushed, harsh tones muffled by the wood of the door I hid behind, splinters digging into my knuckles as I held it open, hoping they wouldn’t try push it wider and realise I was behind.

I waited as two passed. The one moment I had before they realised that the dark shape half-hidden didn’t belong where I was.

I barged the door closed with my shoulder. It hit something, someone. I was dealing with three, minimum, maybe more.

But for now, I only had to worry about two. Their friend shouted as the door hit him in the face, but their confused turn was sluggish compared to my reactions. My knife was in and out of the closest’s kidneys before he even registered my presence. The severity of the wound didn’t register with his body for a while, because he threw a punch, only to find I’d moved around behind him with his turn.

This was my kind of battle. Surprise, close quarters, dark, brutal hand-to-hand combat. No allies to worry about. Everyone one you can hit needs to get hit.

He fell, and I was left facing his friend, raising his gun. In the cramped space it was well within my reach. I pushed his whole arm into the wall with my free hand and punched the knife into his chest.

Where was the heart? On the left? His left. It didn’t much matter. It was so easy, slipping the blade in. I thought the ribs would resist it more. I had time enough to make three holes before his legs gave way, too-bright blood blossomed in a star from the three narrow slits in his grey coat.

My stomach churned. My head didn’t have time to question what I was doing, but my chest was tight with the thrill of watching him fall in a crumpled heap.

There was a bang. I was kicked into a stumble as something thudded into my back. My feet struggled to find a footing, too many limbs littering the floor. Another explosion, a chunk of plaster exploded off the wall.

I pushed off, twisted around with a snarl to face the shooter. The knife lashed out, caught his fingers. The gun fell from his grasp.

I launched myself at him, my anger masking all thoughts on tactics. I didn’t think there could be more than three. I didn’t even look. I just reacted.

The knife went into this shoulder, below his clavicle. Stupid place to stab.

I pulled back but it stuck, blade jammed, lodged in the bone and sinew of the joint. Stupid place to stab. My yanking twist snapped the carbon steel clean in half. I shouted wordless frustration.

He was moving. I smashed what was left of the knife into his face. Hands pulled at me. I hit. I kept hitting.

He stopped.

I stopped.

My ragged breaths slowed, my vision seemed to expand outwards.

I looked down. I was kneeling, straddling a corpse. There was barely any face left. What little of the blade was left had punched narrow diamonds into the skin. I cast my eyes away, I didn’t want to look too closely.

I began to realise how much my legs ached from the running. My shoulder hurt from straining it too much, but I don’t know what had even done that. The muscles in my back stabbed me with pain when I twisted, fresh bruises? From a bullet? My armour seemed to have done its job.

I dragged myself to my feet, staggering away from the bloody body, letting the broken knife slip from my wet fingers.

Useless now.

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Chapter 4.12

I crouched low and moved fast. After thirty steps I fired a random shot into the unknown. A guess that was all. My goal wasn’t really to hit anyone.

With the daylight failing, the air around me flashed a white glow as the muzzle exploded. The sound was muffled. I heard a crack as it impacted something solid and the bullet sang as it ricocheted.

Someone returned fire, on the door presumably. I couldn’t hear bullet’s passing, or any impacts near me. Just the crack of gunfire. I tried to reason that I didn’t need to worry about Mike just yet. The walls of the building were thick. He wasn’t an idiot to go running out into gunfire, not yet.

I didn’t bother trying to go towards the gunfire, or the corresponding glow of light. I was trying to get to the other side. Flank. Rear, sides, I didn’t care.

I didn’t make it to the other side of the street before coming across someone. It was a surprise to me as much as it was to him. I was sprinting in a hunched over crouch, trying to keep my eye simultaneously on my placing my feet and for targets in the mist.

Then, he was there. No warning. No time to stop. We collided, or I threw myself into him. I couldn’t tell if it was a decision or an inevitability. Whatever, things turned out best for me as my knife jammed into his leg.

We fell together. I twisted the blade, feeling it scrape tendons at the back of the knee before breaking free. He screamed a rasping shout of pain and anger. This time I wanted a bit of noise.

I was already moving, rolling away and jumping to my feet, running in a curve.

More shots. Close this time, on top of me almost. But they were erratic, panicked. The kind of shots after you’ve just had a knife stuck in you.

I hit wall, bouncing off it with my palms. No idea which. I’d lost all sense of direction since the encounter. The guy was holding a pistol, only a handful of shots. Soon enough, they stopped.

Couldn’t let things calm down.

I lined up a pane of glass, the second story window high above my head. I figured the sound would travel and from this angle I was unlikely to hit anyone on the other side. A shower of glittering glass fell around me.

Another two, again, randomly into the smoke.

Soon it wasn’t just me. Someone with an automatic opened fire. It’s instinct. Someone shoots at you, you shoot back. Something hard to overcome even if you can’t really see who’s shooting. Self preservation: It’s hard to suppress that desire to defend yourself. The rattle of each shot reached my ears distorted. I’d never heard anything like it before. A stray bullet kicked up a scatter of the road surface above me, and the mangled slug thudded into the wall barely a hand-span from my outstretched arm. There was a short reply, pistol this time, and a shout.

The smoke had started to disperse. I could pick out grey figures, but it was shades of grey on grey. Shadows on the smoke that looked like people dispersed into nothing. Some were just smudges of darkness and movement in the mist.

I fired at one. It dissolved. Dead, or nothing to kill? I was hesitant to pick any more targets. I had no idea when I’d lose the advantage of not having to care about who I was shooting at. Would Mike have notice our cover was dissolving into the night air and made a run for it, or still waiting for me to take out more? I couldn’t stand around waiting in either case.

The rough brick I was pressed against was wet with condensation under my fingertips as I traced the wall along the road. I was either going deeper into the smoke, towards an enemy I had some knowledge on, or further out to where the wind pushed away the smoke and our enemy’s number was unknown. I ran all the same, feeling for the void under my hands as I passed the opening of doorways.

Someone ahead.

Couldn’t make out who. Tricky even taking a guess at the size though the muck. Mike, or an unfriendly gunman?

Shouting. Sounded like Mike.

I arrived just in time to see him getting slammed into the wall by someone twice his size. I tried to stop, skidding as the soles of my boots failed to find traction, gun up.

I sighted on the man’s centre of mass as he loomed over Mike’s crumpled body, but a high-pitched scream tugged for my attention. Behind my target the chemist clutched his daughter. Too close. I couldn’t risk it.

Mike got a face full of boot in the time it took me to close. I jumped, little thought into what I was going to do when I landed on the guy. The smooth metal of the pistol gave me little to grip with.

The knife gave me lots. It dug into the flesh of his shoulder as I wrapped my arms around his neck.

I felt myself slipping all the same, tearing sinew as the knife twisted free. Instinctively I gripped him. There was a deafening bang, a splatter of warm. My stomach flipped as I fell, ending in a heap on top of his crumpled body. Mere inches from my face a bullet from my almost-forgotten-about gun had taken a chunk out of the front of his head. The shallow angle of entry tore a trough through his forehead.

I coughed back the taste of vomit from the back of my throat.

I was fine. This wasn’t even new. I’d seen it before. I was fine.

Mike. Mr Lab man and his kid. Got to keep them moving.

I scanned the surroundings for any more men before kneeling beside Mike. He was blinking erratically, eyes looking through me not at me. Blow to the head. Hope he lives.

I grabbed the scruff of his shirt and lifted him to his feet, but they didn’t organise them under him. Walking was out.

Lab guy.

“Carry!” I shouted at him. “She can walk.”

I had no idea where the door we were aiming for had gone. I turned my attention to one of the windows we were near. Barred, of course. But we needed to get off this street. I shoved the knife in my belt, not bothering sheath. Baton out. I jammed one end between the bars and the crumbling brickwork, pulling the other. It shifted, dust pouring from the mortar. I should just start carry around a god damn crow-bar.

Bracing myself against the wall, I pulled until the muscles in my arms seared with pain. With a thud the rusted tack-weld on the bars itself broke – bringing half the metal from the wall. A few twisting yanks and it had twisted out enough for someone to squeeze through.

I put the glass out with the baton, running it along the edges to clear the most of the shattered window and tossed it through.

I turned and found the little girl being shoved into my arms. She felt like she was made of air, her weight nothing to me. I pushed her though, feet first. Her cheek touched mine, cold wet tears pushed into the side of my face. A fleeting glance as her face disappeared into the darkness was smudged with red. We’d traded tears for blood.

Mike next. Handed to me just like the girl. He was going to curse me afterwards.

Heavier, but not unreasonably so. What was frustrating was the unintelligent flapping of his annoyingly long limbs. Tense and scared was better than mostly-unconscious it seemed.

But I got him through without too many bruises, I think. I didn’t care.

I fired the last four bullets as the father climbed through. They’d organised now. Less confusion. Less noise. Less helpful random gunfire. The smoke was clearing. I saw two figures go down, but the others had clued in on our general location, and were making themselves useful by focusing their fire on us, even if they couldn’t pick out our silhouettes against the wall.

As soon as I saw the feet pass through the opening I hooked my arm around the twisted bars and threw myself through the opening headfirst. I just hoped it was the right building.

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